Elvis may tell The King’s life story over nearly three hours, but it glosses over the details of Presley’s death.
Baz Luhrmann’s epic biopic about Elvis Presley prefers to leave audiences with one of the icon’s last great performances. At the end of the movie, the Moulin Rouge director cuts to real footage of Presley at one of his final concerts. In a triumphant moment, he performs his version of “Unchained Melody” (as heard in the trailer).
The movie chooses not to go any further into The King’s life—perhaps unsurprising, as watching a legend of music dying on the toilet might be too much of a downer ending for a film that cost a reported $85 million. That, and it may have made the Presley family’s approval harder to obtain.
The fact that Elvis does not go into the details of how the real Presley died, however, may only serve to make viewers new to his work more curious at the events around his death—especially as so many conspiracy theories around the events abound.
How Did Elvis Die?
Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42. He was found dead by then-girlfriend Ginger Alden (who does not appear in the Elvis movie), who found him unconscious and lying face down in the master bathroom of his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.
Doctors tried to revive him, but he was pronounced dead around 3 p.m. that afternoon. A few hours later, a trio of doctors performed an autopsy on his body.
There was public disagreement in these pathologist’s findings, which is perhaps where the conspiracy theories begin. One of the pathologists Dr. Jerry Francisco (who had witnessed the autopsy but, per PBS, had not performed it) told press that Presley had died of “cardiac arrhythmia.” This was then listed as the official reason for death, alongside “ventricular fibrillation…due to unknown causes.”
Per The Washington Post at the time, Francisco claimed Presley’s heart was enlarged by about a third due to high blood pressure.
Though the autopsy did conclude that Presley had died of a heart attack, Francisco told press that drugs were not involved.
“I can find no evidence of drug abuse,” he summed up. “We haven’t completed all the toxicological tests, but I feel as confident as I can be that drugs played no part in his death.”
He also noted that there could be an unknown contributor to the singer’s death, as his ailments were not enough to kill him on their own.
This was found to not be the case, and the other pathologists would later admit he had covered up the role of drugs in the death at the request of the family.
The public found this out a few weeks later, when toxicology reports revealed high levels of drugs including Quaaludes as well as prescription drugs like Dilaudid, Percodan, Demerol, and codeine. In total, there were 11 drugs in the singer’s blood at the time of his death.
In 1979, leading forensic scientist Dr. Cyril Wecht (one-time president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences) appeared on 20/20. He examined Presley’s medical records and argued that it was these drugs that had led to his death.
PBS NewsHour columnist Dr. Howard Markel went into more detail in a 2018 piece. He suggested that Presley died of a heart attack caused by him trying a pass a bowel movement while suffering severe constipation. This constipation, however, he blames on the drugs in Presley’s body, which can cause severe difficulty in patients trying to defecate.
As he notes: “[Combine] the obesity Elvis suffered from near the end of his life, what appears to be type II diabetes, an enlarged heart, and a steady diet of unhealthy, fatty and fried foods, along with his notorious prescription pill consumption, and you have the perfect prescription for disaster.”
Later, Presley’s personal physician George Nichopoulos was indicted twice for overprescribing to Presley. Though he was acquitted both times, he had his medical license permanently suspended in 1995 by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.
Elvis is in theaters from June 24.
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